Athletes rarely play into their 40’s, however “athlete” is rarely a term associated with Tom Brady. You only have to watch his Combine footage to understand why. And yet, a scrawny kid from San Mateo, California has become the most successful quarterback of all time and is lauded as the greatest player in the history of the NFL.
His story to the top of the NFL has been well documented, from his days at Michigan to his draft experience and Mo Lewis’ hit, Brady’s rise is perhaps the most well-known story in American sport. But on the quarterback’s 40th birthday we are not here to look back at his stellar career, we are here to look at what is left of it.
How long can Brady go?
For a lot of players, continuing on into their 40’s just isn’t an option. For Brady, this is far from the end.
“I’ve always said my mid-40s,” Brady told ESPN earlier this year. “And naturally that means around 45. If I get there and I still feel like I do today, I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to continue.”
That statement will be music to the ears of Patriots fans, and sheer torture to the rest of the NFL. However, there is no history of quarterbacks playing into their 40’s to even begin comparing to and mapping out a career path to 45.
Brett Favre’s age-40 season was strong, with 33 touchdowns and just seven picks for Minnesota. But by age 41 he imploded, and then was gone. Peyton Manning’s body deteriorated and by 39 he was a negative to his offense but managed to be carried to a Super Bowl by his defense. John Elway and Dan Marino stopped at 38. Players like Doug Flutie and Vinny Testaverde played into their 40’s, but as backups. Warren Moon retired at 44 but his last full season was at 41.
In other words, Brady is trying to do something no one else has done: play well into his 40’s.
“We always talk about the difference between just playing and performing,” said Alex Guerrero, Brady’s health guru “I mean, look at Peyton Manning. He won a Super Bowl at age 39. But that wasn’t sustaining peak performance.”
Sustaining peak performance
If that is really Brady’s goal, what is the kind of stat line he would need to produce to be happy? Excluding his rookie year where he threw three passes and 2008 when he suffered a torn ACL in his first game, Brady has played 15 seasons and an average season line would look like this: 63.8% pass completion, 3,844 yards, 29 touchdowns, and ten interceptions. Except, that’s not quite right.
When discussing Brady it’s important to remember that his career spans eras. When he stepped onto the field for Drew Bledsoe in 2001 the rules for defenses getting physical with receivers, for crushing quarterbacks, and generally punishing ball carriers were a lot more relaxed. It wasn’t really until 2004 that the rules opened up, and 2006 that teams adjusted to that. If you take his average season from the second half of his career, from 2009 on when the league really became passer happy, you get a 16-game average of 64.4% pass completion, 4,534 yards, 33 touchdowns, and nine picks.
If Brady were to ever start dipping under those stats it would be easy for him to see that he is no longer “sustaining peak performance”.
The game plan
Brady’s route to those numbers is based entirely on two factors. Pre-snap reads of the defense, and arm strength.
The first one should never fade as long as he keeps doing his homework, and Brady’s work ethic is strong enough to keep him in the film room until someone drags him away. The second is trickier to assess and predict.
Brady’s never been known as a deep passer. If anything it has long been the weakest part of his game, covered by the fact that he had Randy Moss for a few years and has otherwise avoided driving the ball 40+ yards down the field. However, that doesn’t mean he lacks arm strength.
Tom Brady drives the ball as well as any quarterback on short and intermediate routes. He’s always been able to fire bullets into his slot receiver, be it Wes Welker or Julian Edelman. That much was evident in Super Bowl LI when he was busy slinging passes through the hopes and dreams of Atlanta fans to his receivers in stride.
Problems will start to appear for Brady if he begins to lose that arm strength that allows him to fit the ball through tiny windows in the defense. Brady has long had one of the quickest releases in football, which helps him avoid the pass rush, but if his arm strength declines it is going to necessitate more of a windup to compensate, and that brings up a whole other set of issues. His footwork and movement in the pocket is second-to-none, but his ability to truly avoid pass rushers and create space is far from Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. And the more hits that land on Brady, the bigger that "retirement" word will become.
There are not many people who get to play for as long as I have, and I want to be able to show the next generation of athletes that if you follow certain routines and you’re disciplined in certain areas, then you could get to do this, too.
An awful lot goes into keeping a body as finely tuned as Brady’s. He long ago admitted to being in bed by 8.30pm. He doesn’t eat things like sugar, white flour, olive oil, mushrooms, peppers… Just the diet alone would drive people insane.
"I have to make different choices, there's no other 39-year-olds playing now at quarterback. So, you better do things a little differently," Brady said in an interview last year. "I try to not eat as much sugar, but it's so hard in our American diet to do that. ... It's hard to completely avoid. I don't drink much alcohol."
Doing things differently. That’s a good way to explain what Brady does, and it’s perhaps the best example he can leave to those trying to emulate his success.
However, that kind of grind can wear on people. If this is what it takes to keep Brady at peak performance at 40, what will it take at 42, or 43? If he does this and his performance slips, is there really anything he can do to get it back?
The contingency plan
Brady is a New England icon. Perhaps more revered in Boston than Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, or Ted Williams. But that doesn’t mean Bill Belichick isn’t planning for life without him. We got a glimpse of that plan in the first four weeks of 2016 when Brady was suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo, and then Jacoby Brissett, got to make a mark. Garoppolo was impressive, enough so to get a lot of trade buzz. With one year left on his contract the idea of Belichick letting such a valuable commodity walk away for nothing is an outlandish one, but so is the idea of giving him a new contract, paying him effectively like a starter, and keeping him on the bench.
2017 will be a defining season for Brady. He is facing the biggest threat to his job since Bernard Pollard crashed into his leg nearly 10 years ago, only this time it’s the tag team of Father Time and Garoppolo that could push him out.
It’s rare that a great gets to go out on his own terms. Peyton Manning and Joe Montana ended up on different teams to the one they will always be remembered for. Could Brady end up going somewhere else after this season?
Belichick is notorious for being willing to part with a player a season too early rather than a season too late. However, even for him, moving Brady would be an incredibly risky move. The most obvious place to send him would be San Francisco, Brady’s childhood team, where he can follow in the footsteps of his idol Montana. But that could lead to the truly Twilight Zone moment of Brady lining up opposite Belichick and the Patriots in a Super Bowl. Just the thought of that is making my head hurt.
No one knows quite what it holds for Brady. At 40 he is about to embark on a stage of his career that very few have reached. He has achieved more than any other single player in the NFL when you combine his rings, stats, and the sheer towering presence he has had over the league. As an unashamed Patriots fan, I never want the Brady era to end. I know it will, and so does he.
He’s just going to do everything in his power to delay the day he can no longer fire a post route between a safety and linebackers. To delay the moment he is no longer pulling that #12 jersey over his head. He has been written off many times before. At Michigan, during his draft, after his first Super Bowl. During the Patriots 11-5 run without him there were rumblings he would be replaced. In 2014 following a Week 4 thrashing by Kansas City all the talking heads buzzed that he was done. He won the Super Bowl that year. Down 28-3 in Houston on February 5 of this year many lost faith. He won the Super Bowl then too. He made a mockery of every single person that ever questioned him. Who are we to question if he can play until he’s 45?
Tom Brady is the greatest player to ever throw a football. If anyone can defy Father Time, it’s #12. Happy birthday Tom.
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